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What's The Right Age For A President?

This column was written by CBS News director of surveys Kathy Frankovic.

Is John McCain too old to be President? More to the point: do people think he is too old?

When we ask Americans, "In general, what is the best age for a president of the United States?" as a CBS News/New York Times poll did last February, we get some surprising results, although it just might show their ignorance about how old the candidates are.

Just about half, 48 percent, said the "best" age for a president was the 50s, even though neither of the presumptive nominees is in his fifties (nor is Hillary Clinton). Barack Obama is 46, and just 20 percent of registered voters said the 40s was the right age for a president. But far fewer - only 2 percent -- thought McCain's decade (70's) was the best for the job. But even that 2 percent was higher than what Americans said in 2007, when zero percent thought being in one's 70s was the best age for the job.

There was little difference between the parties, too, in those poll results. Republicans, Democrats and independents all said the 50's was best, though Republicans had a slight preference for an older president: 28 percent of them said the 60's was the right presidential age, compared with just 10 percent of Democrats. On the other hand, Democrats were willing to go younger: three times as many Democrats (30 percent) as Republicans (10 percent) looked for a 40-ish candidate.

Partisanship shows up more when we specify names and ages. In the most recent CBS News Poll, we asked: "If John McCain is elected president (in 2008) he will be 72 years old when he takes office. Do you think his age would help him be an effective president, or do you think his age would be an obstacle to being an effective president, or wouldn't his age matter that much?"

Thirty percent of registered voters said McCain's age would be an obstacle. But here there were partisan answers: just 9 percent of Republicans viewed McCain's age as an obstacle, compared with 42 percent of Democrats. The vast majority of Republicans thought age wouldn't make a difference - and 13 percent said it even would be a help to McCain as President.

The surprise we found is that, although one might expect younger voters to be least forgiving about an older Americans running for President, that was not true. Voters under the age of 30 were less likely to say McCain's age is an obstacle than older voters were, and 18-29 year olds were also more likely to say that his age will help. Eleven percent of young voters think McCain's age will help (compared with 7 percent of older voters); 23 percent of them say it will be an obstacle.

Youth and age impact one's perception of the optimal presidential age, however. Only 9 percent of those under 30 said a president should be 60 or older - something 30 percent of those over 60 believed. But few young people were willing to have a president just a little bit older than they were - in his 30's. For all age groups, the 50's were best.

People have been asking whether a presidential candidate is "too old" for a long time. In 1944, 34 percent told the Gallup Poll that Franklin Roosevelt's age would hurt him in that year's election. Roosevelt was just 62 that year. In 1955, as in 2008, the fifties were thought of as the ideal presidential age. Forty three percent (also in a Gallup poll) thought anyone 70 or older was "too old" to run for president (76 percent thought being 65 or older should disqualify you). In the fall of 1979, 36 percent of registered voters told CBS News said they would be less likely to vote for someone over the age of 65 for the office of president.

Ronald Reagan was able to deflect this criticism in 1984, when he was 73, and his opponent, Walter Mondale was 56 (a popular presidential age, according to the voters). In a debate, Reagan was asked if there was any doubt in his mind that he could function if world events forced him to work several days with very little sleep. To this, Reagan famously responded: "Not at all ….and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience…. I might add that it was Seneca or it was Cicero, I don't know which, that said if it was not for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, there would be no state."

In 1996, 72-year-old Bob Dole was also older than most candidates have ever been. In January of that year, 30 percent said his age would be an obstacle for him as president; the number rose to 37 percent in August, and fell slightly to 33 percent in October, just before the election.

So asking about a candidate's age is not a new thing. Although nearly a third might say McCain is too old, about the same percentage of voters thought Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt were too old. And they won!
By Kathy Frankovic

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